1. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    Portraying Mental Illness with Supernatural Origins

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by DK3654, May 21, 2018.

    So I'm making an urban fantasy hidden world type of series. My #1 main character- Sarah- is (unsurprisingly) the main entry point into understanding the hidden supernatural world in terms of audience perspective. We see bits and pieces from other major characters who are already aware before she is, but it's more through her journey than anyone else's that we enter the hidden world.
    This journey is mainly about the character's own condition- psychologically and...otherwise. She has from the beginning of the story, a history of mental illness that affects her mood, producing volatile behaviour (some form of bipolar, I think). But, at this point in her life, she's managed to deal with it fairly well. However, as the story progresses, thinks rapidly begin to get worse for her, not only in intensity, but new symptoms. As it happens, her mental illness is itself a symptom of something bigger- a supernatural ancestry, that has been influencing her mind even while most of the supernatural traits have remained dormant. Her supernatural side has different inclinations and it's conflict with her human side has produced instability, in the form of her mental illness.

    While Sarah's mental illness isn't normal exactly, so not everything will be based in reality, it's not as if everyone thinks she's seeing things "but everything she sees is real!". She is experiencing, at the very least, something very much like real mental illness, if not simply mental illness with added supernatural factors.

    So my questions are: what is the correct balance between accurate depictions of mental illness and depictions of supernatural influence for such a story? And what are the general rules for depicting mental illness with other goals affecting the depiction in mind- what should I definitely include or avoid? I'm no expert in psychology nor someone with a whole load of personal experience so tips from people in either position particularly would be appreciated.
     
  2. OB1

    OB1 Senior Member

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    I don't think there are any rules as such, and if there were I would say it is your work so do what thou wilt. Having said that, I think there is a certain degree of sensitivity that I think you should beware of. I think it is important if say your character is bipolar, that you accurately portray the bipolar aspect of her life. However, I think it's important to stress that although people with bipolar, have a condition, it isn't necessarily who they are. It is a small aspect of them that they need to wrestle with and get on with their life. People generally don't go around saying, Hi I am Dave and I am bipolar. So how you get the point that they are bipolar across accurately and believably will be the difficult bit.

    In short, research the conditions, physical manifestations etc and include your findings as part of your story. Otherwise it will just come across as a cliché.

    How you link that with supernatural abilities is another topic entirely. I personally wouldn't have the supernatural ability come after the bipolar. I think they should always have this power, which leads to them having mental health issues. I mean if being able to talk to dead people was actually real, I think it would cause some sort of mental issue of some degree!
     
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  3. Simpson17866

    Simpson17866 Contributor Contributor

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    One of the worst messages you can get across is "psychotic disorders like paranoid schizophrenia do not actually exist, everything that doctors thought were delusions and hallucinations were actually real, and medication is something that The Enemy uses to hide the truth from you."

    Whatever else you do with the supernatural angle, I would ask that you make it clear in your world that, if not the majority, then at least a significant minority of mental illness has nothing to do with the supernatural.
     
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  4. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    Oh don't worry. The point really of this element in the story is that it plays into the larger theme of identity in the story. It will be actively explored in the story exactly how much it defines her character. Sarah is herself very determined to not let it define her.

    Absolutely.
    That's one of the reasons why I made this thread- for extra tips on specifically writing for it from people who know more.

    It's important to the current story that they don't always have the powers. Getting the powers is the entry point. And I like both having the mental health thing as a plot and, particularly, a character point, and also having there be some pre-existing condition to having supernatural ancestry and not just suddenly "whoop, you're a supernatural being and now you get powers". Even if the supernatural part is dormant, you'd think it would still mean something- it's still there.

    If you are concerned that shortly after getting the powers, all the mental health issues pretty much go away, you needn't worry. The powers themselves have somewhat of a toll, as well as the continued influence of the whole thing on her mind.
     
  5. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    The focus on the mental health issue here is not on psychosis. And even if it was, that's certainly not something I want to do or give the impression of. It's less than half of the population with mental health issues this applies to. This is not supernatural things that just seem like mental illness either, the intention is that this is still really mental illness of some form. And the cause of these mental health issues is not some kind of malevolent scheme either- in fact it's very much like normal mental health issues in that it's a part of that person.
     
  6. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    To go back to this particular comment, to everyone- what, exactly, is the cliché here?
    Obviously I should avoid do hallucinations that are all just real supernatural things, as has been covered.
    And obviously with something like bipolar, it shouldn't just be typical emotional swings or crazy over the top simplistic ones.
    But what are some of the less obvious but still common mistakes?
     
  7. OB1

    OB1 Senior Member

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    What I meant was that if you don't do your research then the actual emphasis on the mental health issues becomes inane and the supernatural bit is the thing that makes it believable. In this context the cliché would be badly portrayed characteristics that makes the reader tut, because they want something believable and feel like they have been mislead or short changed. When things come across as badly written or badly thought out it cheapens the experience. The reader expects you to do all the leg work in building the scene, the character and believability, which includes the research side of the book. If the reader feels like you haven't invested your time in researching the topic thoroughly through your descriptions, then they will feel the same in reading your book.
     
  8. Dragon Turtle

    Dragon Turtle Deadlier Jerry

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    This is a controversial topic, but I'm actually really interested in fantasy stories that explore the intersection between mental illness (and any other disability, really) and supernatural things. Unfortunately a lot of writers who choose to go this route handle it poorly, in shallow and cliched ways. So I think it's great that you're thinking about it, and asking for ideas.

    By shallow and cliched, I mean specifically this: Turns out there's no such thing as mental illness, it all has a magical explanation! So, what @Simpson17866 was getting at above. If you can make it clear that mental illness does indeed have a biological cause for most people in your world, that would help. If you want to make things really interesting, you might rethink the relationship between the supernatural and the biological in Sarah's case. For example, what if she genuinely has bipolar, just because of brain stuff--like everyone who has it in real life--and it's well managed with therapy and medication and what have you, but then she starts getting these new intensifying supernatural symptoms that totally throw her off-balance and exacerbate her old health issues? Alright, I'm straying into "this is how I would write it" territory, so I'll stop. ;) But can you see what I mean about how there are more complex ways to approach these kinds of stories than just straight-up "mental illness not actually mental"?

    The other thing I would hope you'll avoid is depicting people with bipolar as being dangerous or violent because of their illness. That's a common, inaccurate, and harmful stereotype.
     
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  9. ocean blue

    ocean blue New Member

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    I always find it funny when someone else has a question or idea so similar to something that I was bouncing around in my head, too.

    Because in the fantasy story I'm writing, the main villain is what I guess some would call mentally unstable. This is because he attempted to use magic that ended up driving him insane. But I want to avoid making it seem like his mental instabilities are what make him "evil" on their own, because I don't want to say "mental illness is bad and makes people violent". That's not the message I'm going for at all.

    I guess I'd say he's more like the Joker: appearing insane, but with no actual diagnosis of psychological disorders. It's almost as if his insanity is just an act, and he's actually more sane than anyone else. Which is sort of what makes him so terrifying.

    (And also, magic is not going to be used as an explanation for all mental illnesses. In most cases, mental illnesses will be just that, with no magical or supernatural influences. It's just in this rare case where the chaotic power of magic will drive someone "crazy".)
     
  10. izzybot

    izzybot Transhuman Autophage Contributor

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    This is something that I'd normally be really interested in expounding on as a psych nerd, mentally ill person with Opinions(tm), and urban fantasy fan+writer, but to be honest I don't really have the energy at the moment -- instead I'm going to talk about how I chose to deal with a similar concept in my own work.

    My initial concept was for a character who had been misdiagnosed as schizophrenic when in reality she had the Sight, and was able to see and interact with things that other humans couldn't perceive. These kinds of stories appeal to me, but I recognize the inherent issues that @Simpson17866 mentioned up above about how they tend to carry an unfortunate implication that Medication Is Bad, You're Just Special. So I mulled for a long time over how I could spin a story like this to not have that implicit message. Ultimately, I couldn't come up with anything.

    Instead, I decided to divorce the Sight from the actual mental illness. The character in question is still misdiagnosed with schizophrenia, but while her apparent hallucinations are a result of the Sight, things like her paranoia, social withdrawing, lack of trust in others, and 'delusions' -- which effectively adds up to a personality disorder -- are more a result of how she's been treated because people think she has schizophrenia. It's more a case study in how harmful misdiagnosis can be, and the character does have emotional problems and a legitimate mental illness that aren't traceable to the Sight, and aren't going to be fixed because she finds out that she's not 'crazy', she can just see fae folk.

    I think that by doing this, I'm avoid conflating magical powers and mental illness. I'm still dealing with a character who experiences an actual, non-magical problem, but the magical stuff is also there.

    So what I'd do for your set-up is write the character as someone who does actually have bipolar disorder, then throw the magic stuff in there on top of it -- let it exacerbate her existing symptoms, sure, but maybe also let it give her problems that have nothing to do with and can in no way be connected to BD, to make it clear that this isn't just 'magical BD'. I'd very much shy away from her having some later realization that her problems were just caused by the magic aspect all along.

    Also -- as always -- do tons of research on bipolar disorder. You don't have to be an expert, buy you should educate yourself as much as possible, and for something like this you'd need to really know your stuff in order to plausibly differentiate between the actual illness and the magic stuff. There's a lot of media out there that horribly misunderstands mental illnesses, and you don't want to be one when your story deals with it in detail.
     
  11. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    My approach is not far from that. Before the beginning of the story, Sarah's condition, while having a supernatural origin the whole time, is in effect just a regular mental health condition. And even more so, the supernatural side is more likely to awaken in people who have some basis for it without the additional influence. So it's not just stapled on, it expands out of her own normal human psyche.
    As for 'mental illness not actually mental', I'd also like to add that even in-so-far as it's supernatural, Sarah's condition is still psychological in nature. She is influenced by a supernatural power, but it's not some disrupting force, it's a supernatural power within her own mind, a different side of herself just as inherent as the other.

    That's a probably going to be one of the most sensitive areas given what I have in mind from the supernatural perspective.
     
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  12. DK3654

    DK3654 Almost a Productive Member of Society Contributor

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    You're in good company with my character :)

    I think that's an excellent approach and it follows my line of thinking as well.
    Also, hey, I'm doing fae folk too.

    There will definitely be problems above-and-beyond BD. Let's start with very dangerous powers.
    As for your last point- the main way I am avoiding something that simplistic and problematic is that there's a blurred line between her normal psyche and the supernatural influence. They don't exist separately, influencing each other independently, but exist in combination with each other. There is little about her that is just one side or the other- they both play a role.
     

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